Tag: Shakespeare

The known unknown Plantagenet House of Saud

Friday, 19 October, 2018

What Do We Really Know about Saudi Arabia? That’s the question posed by Kevin D. Williamson over at National Review. Good line: “It’s one of the few extant monarchies that seem serious about keeping the mon in their archy.”

Good point: “Khashoggi wasn’t just a troublesome journalist; he was, as the New York Times puts it, a man who had had ‘a successful career as an adviser to and unofficial spokesman for the royal family of Saudi Arabia.’ A businessman who has spent many years working in the Middle East says: ‘I don’t think the Saudis would send 15 assassins to chop up a ‘mere’ journalist, but they would send 15 assassins to settle some internecine family feud.’ He also cautions that the Middle Eastern tendency to resort to conspiracy theories to explain complicated relationships is likely to muddy the water.”

Williams says this GUBU (Grotesque, Unbelievable, Bizarre, Unprecedented) Saudi spectacle is “a platinum-plated Shakespearean succession drama in the desert, with schisms within the royal family and between the royal family proper and other centers of power.” Sadly, the Saudi’s don’t have a Shakespeare, but neither does the rest of the world right now. Still, the template is there because the 14 Plantagenet monarchs who ruled England from 1154 to 1485 inspired Shakespeare to write eight “Plantagenet plays,” from Richard II to Richard III via the two parts of Henry IV, Henry V, and the three parts of Henry VI. In Plantagenet England, murder was the order of the day, and it’s no different today in the land ruled by the House of Saud.


Prince Hal

Saturday, 19 May, 2018

Stories about young Prince Harry’s wild life were legendary. According to the English chronicler Thomas Elmham (1364 –1427), “He fervently followed the service of Venus as well as of Mars, as a young man might he burned with her torches, and other insolences accompanied the years of his untamed youth.”

Some 150 years after Elmham’s death, William Shakespeare wrote Henry IV, Part I. Here, in Act 1, Scene 1: Falstaff addresses Hal:

Marry, then, sweet wag, when thou art king, let not
us that are squires of the night’s body be called
thieves of the day’s beauty: let us be Diana’s
foresters, gentlemen of the shade, minions of the
moon; and let men say we be men of good government,
being governed, as the sea is, by our noble and
chaste mistress the moon, under whose countenance we steal.

And Prince Hal says:

If all the year were playing holidays,
To sport would be as tedious as to work,
But when they seldom come, they wished-for come,
And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents.
So when this loose behavior I throw off
And pay the debt I never promised,
By how much better than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes;
And like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glitt’ring o’er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.

Royal Wedding


George Orwell: “Politics and the English Language”

Wednesday, 9 May, 2018 0 Comments

If Rainy Day has a manifesto, it is the great essay “Politics and the English Language”, which George Orwell wrote in 1946. The English language and politics are at the heart of this blog and while we cannot hope to match Orwell in any way, he is our style guide, mentor and patron saint. To celebrate the Rainy Day birthday, the essay has been embellished with some tastefully-chosen images.

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Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent and our language — so the argument runs — must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.

George Orwell Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers. I will come back to this presently, and I hope that by that time the meaning of what I have said here will have become clearer. Meanwhile, here are five specimens of the English language as it is now habitually written.

These five passages have not been picked out because they are especially bad — I could have quoted far worse if I had chosen — but because they illustrate various of the mental vices from which we now suffer. They are a little below the average, but are fairly representative examples. I number them so that I can refer back to them when necessary:

1. I am not, indeed, sure whether it is not true to say that the Milton who once seemed not unlike a seventeenth-century Shelley had not become, out of an experience ever more bitter in each year, more alien [sic] to the founder of that Jesuit sect which nothing could induce him to tolerate. Professor Harold Laski (Essay in Freedom of Expression)

2. Above all, we cannot play ducks and drakes with a native battery of idioms which prescribes egregious collocations of vocables as the Basic put up with for tolerate, or put at a loss for bewilder. Professor Lancelot Hogben (Interglossa)

3. On the one side we have the free personality: by definition it is not neurotic, for it has neither conflict nor dream. Its desires, such as they are, are transparent, for they are just what institutional approval keeps in the forefront of consciousness; another institutional pattern would alter their number and intensity; there is little in them that is natural, irreducible, or culturally dangerous. But on the other side, the social bond itself is nothing but the mutual reflection of these self-secure integrities. Recall the definition of love. Is not this the very picture of a small academic? Where is there a place in this hall of mirrors for either personality or fraternity? Essay on psychology in Politics (New York)

4. All the “best people” from the gentlemen’s clubs, and all the frantic fascist captains, united in common hatred of Socialism and bestial horror at the rising tide of the mass revolutionary movement, have turned to acts of provocation, to foul incendiarism, to medieval legends of poisoned wells, to legalize their own destruction of proletarian organizations, and rouse the agitated petty-bourgeoise to chauvinistic fervor on behalf of the fight against the revolutionary way out of the crisis. Communist pamphlet

5. If a new spirit is to be infused into this old country, there is one thorny and contentious reform which must be tackled, and that is the humanization and galvanization of the B.B.C. Timidity here will bespeak canker and atrophy of the soul. The heart of Britain may be sound and of strong beat, for instance, but the British lion’s roar at present is like that of Bottom in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream — as gentle as any sucking dove. A virile new Britain cannot continue indefinitely to be traduced in the eyes or rather ears, of the world by the effete languors of Langham Place, brazenly masquerading as “standard English.” When the Voice of Britain is heard at nine o’clock, better far and infinitely less ludicrous to hear aitches honestly dropped than the present priggish, inflated, inhibited, school-ma’amish arch braying of blameless bashful mewing maidens! Letter in Tribune

Each of these passages has faults of its own, but, quite apart from avoidable ugliness, two qualities are common to all of them. The first is staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision. The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing. As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse. I list below, with notes and examples, various of the tricks by means of which the work of prose construction is habitually dodged.

Dying metaphors. A newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image, while on the other hand a metaphor which is technically “dead” (e.g. iron resolution) has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness. But in between these two classes there is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves. axe Examples are: Ring the changes on, take up the cudgel for, toe the line, ride roughshod over, stand shoulder to shoulder with, play into the hands of, no axe to grind, grist to the mill, fishing in troubled waters, on the order of the day, Achilles’ heel, swan song, hotbed. Many of these are used without knowledge of their meaning (what is a “rift,” for instance?), and incompatible metaphors are frequently mixed, a sure sign that the writer is not interested in what he is saying. Some metaphors now current have been twisted out of their original meaning without those who use them even being aware of the fact. For example, toe the line is sometimes written as tow the line. Another example is the hammer and the anvil, now always used with the implication that the anvil gets the worst of it. In real life it is always the anvil that breaks the hammer, never the other way about: a writer who stopped to think what he was saying would avoid perverting the original phrase.

Operators or verbal false limbs. These save the trouble of picking out appropriate verbs and nouns, and at the same time pad each sentence with extra syllables which give it an appearance of symmetry. Characteristic phrases are render inoperative, militate against, make contact with, be subjected to, give rise to, give grounds for, have the effect of, play a leading part (role) in, make itself felt, take effect, exhibit a tendency to, serve the purpose of, etc., etc. The keynote is the elimination of simple verbs. Instead of being a single word, such as break, stop, spoil, mend, kill, a verb becomes a phrase, made up of a noun or adjective tacked on to some general-purpose verb such as prove, serve, form, play, render. In addition, the passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active, and noun constructions are used instead of gerunds (by examination of instead of by examining). The range of verbs is further cut down by means of the -ize and de- formations, and the banal statements are given an appearance of profundity by means of the not un– formation. Simple conjunctions and prepositions are replaced by such phrases as with respect to, having regard to, the fact that, by dint of, in view of, in the interests of, on the hypothesis that; and the ends of sentences are saved by anticlimax by such resounding commonplaces as greatly to be desired, cannot be left out of account, a development to be expected in the near future, deserving of serious consideration, brought to a satisfactory conclusion, and so on and so forth.

Pretentious diction. Words like phenomenon, element, individual (as noun), objective, categorical, effective, virtual, basic, primary, promote, constitute, exhibit, exploit, utilize, eliminate, liquidate, are used to dress up a simple statement and give an air of scientific impartiality to biased judgements. Adjectives like epoch-making, epic, historic, unforgettable, triumphant, age-old, inevitable, inexorable, veritable, are used to dignify the sordid process of international politics, while writing that aims at glorifying war usually takes on an archaic color, its characteristic words being: realm, throne, chariot, mailed fist, trident, sword, shield, buckler, banner, jackboot, clarion. Foreign words and expressions such as cul de sac, ancien regime, deus ex machina, mutatis mutandis, status quo, gleichschaltung, weltanschauung, are used to give an air of culture and elegance. Except for the useful abbreviations i.e., e.g., and etc., there is no real need for any of the hundreds of foreign phrases now current in the English language. Bad writers, and especially scientific, political, and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones, and unnecessary words like expedite, ameliorate, predict, extraneous, deracinated, clandestine, subaqueous, and hundreds of others constantly gain ground from their Anglo-Saxon numbers.

Karl Marx Marxist writing. The jargon peculiar to Marxist writing (hyena, hangman, cannibal, petty bourgeois, these gentry, lackey, flunkey, mad dog, White Guard, etc.) consists largely of words translated from Russian, German, or French; but the normal way of coining a new word is to use Latin or Greek root with the appropriate affix and, where necessary, the size formation. It is often easier to make up words of this kind (deregionalize, impermissible, extramarital, non-fragmentary and so forth) than to think up the English words that will cover one’s meaning. The result, in general, is an increase in slovenliness and vagueness.

Meaningless words. In certain kinds of writing, particularly in art criticism and literary criticism, it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning. Words like romantic, plastic, values, human, dead, sentimental, natural, vitality, as used in art criticism, are strictly meaningless, in the sense that they not only do not point to any discoverable object, but are hardly ever expected to do so by the reader. When one critic writes, “The outstanding feature of Mr. X’s work is its living quality,” while another writes, “The immediately striking thing about Mr. X’s work is its peculiar deadness,” the reader accepts this as a simple difference of opinion. If words like black and white were involved, instead of the jargon words dead and living, he would see at once that language was being used in an improper way. Many political words are similarly abused. The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies “something not desirable.” The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different. Statements like Marshal Pétain was a true patriot, The Soviet press is the freest in the world, The Catholic Church is opposed to persecution, are almost always made with intent to deceive. Other words used in variable meanings, in most cases more or less dishonestly, are: class, totalitarian, science, progressive, reactionary, bourgeois, equality.

Now that I have made this catalogue of swindles and perversions, let me give another example of the kind of writing that they lead to. This time it must of its nature be an imaginary one. I am going to translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort. Here is a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Here it is in modern English:

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

This is a parody, but not a very gross one. Exhibit (3) above, for instance, contains several patches of the same kind of English. It will be seen that I have not made a full translation. The beginning and ending of the sentence follow the original meaning fairly closely, but in the middle the concrete illustrations — race, battle, bread — dissolve into the vague phrases “success or failure in competitive activities.” This had to be so, because no modern writer of the kind I am discussing — no one capable of using phrases like “objective considerations of contemporary phenomena” — would ever tabulate his thoughts in that precise and detailed way. The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness. Now analyze these two sentences a little more closely. The first contains forty-nine words but only sixty syllables, and all its words are those of everyday life. The second contains thirty-eight words of ninety syllables: eighteen of those words are from Latin roots, and one from Greek. The first sentence contains six vivid images, and only one phrase (“time and chance”) that could be called vague. The second contains not a single fresh, arresting phrase, and in spite of its ninety syllables it gives only a shortened version of the meaning contained in the first. Yet without a doubt it is the second kind of sentence that is gaining ground in modern English. I do not want to exaggerate. This kind of writing is not yet universal, and outcrops of simplicity will occur here and there in the worst-written page. Still, if you or I were told to write a few lines on the uncertainty of human fortunes, we should probably come much nearer to my imaginary sentence than to the one from Ecclesiastes.

boot As I have tried to show, modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. The attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy. It is easier — even quicker, once you have the habit — to say In my opinion it is not an unjustifiable assumption that than to say I think. If you use ready-made phrases, you not only don’t have to hunt about for the words; you also don’t have to bother with the rhythms of your sentences since these phrases are generally so arranged as to be more or less euphonious. When you are composing in a hurry — when you are dictating to a stenographer, for instance, or making a public speech — it is natural to fall into a pretentious, Latinized style. Tags like a consideration which we should do well to bear in mind or a conclusion to which all of us would readily assent will save many a sentence from coming down with a bump. By using stale metaphors, similes, and idioms, you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself. This is the significance of mixed metaphors. The sole aim of a metaphor is to call up a visual image. When these images clash — as in The Fascist octopus has sung its swan song, the jackboot is thrown into the melting pot — it can be taken as certain that the writer is not seeing a mental image of the objects he is naming; in other words he is not really thinking. Look again at the examples I gave at the beginning of this essay. Professor Laski (1) uses five negatives in fifty three words. One of these is superfluous, making nonsense of the whole passage, and in addition there is the slip — alien for akin — making further nonsense, and several avoidable pieces of clumsiness which increase the general vagueness. Professor Hogben (2) plays ducks and drakes with a battery which is able to write prescriptions, and, while disapproving of the everyday phrase put up with, is unwilling to look egregious up in the dictionary and see what it means; (3), if one takes an uncharitable attitude towards it, is simply meaningless: probably one could work out its intended meaning by reading the whole of the article in which it occurs. In (4), the writer knows more or less what he wants to say, but an accumulation of stale phrases chokes him like tea leaves blocking a sink. In (5), words and meaning have almost parted company. People who write in this manner usually have a general emotional meaning — they dislike one thing and want to express solidarity with another — but they are not interested in the detail of what they are saying. A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: 1. What am I trying to say? 2. What words will express it? 3. What image or idiom will make it clearer? 4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: 1. Could I put it more shortly? 2. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly? But you are not obliged to go to all this trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you — even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent — and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself. It is at this point that the special connection between politics and the debasement of language becomes clear.

In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing. Where it is not true, it will generally be found that the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions and not a “party line.” Orthodoxy, of whatever color, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style. The political dialects to be found in pamphlets, leading articles, manifestoes, White papers and the speeches of undersecretaries do, of course, vary from party to party, but they are all alike in that one almost never finds in them a fresh, vivid, homemade turn of speech. When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases — bestial atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder — one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker’s spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them. And this is not altogether fanciful. A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church. And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favorable to political conformity.

gulag

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them. Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, “I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so.” Probably, therefore, he will say something like this:

“While freely conceding that the Soviet regime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigors which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement.”

The inflated style itself is a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as “keeping out of politics.” All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer. I should expect to find — this is a guess which I have not sufficient knowledge to verify — that the German, Russian and Italian languages have all deteriorated in the last ten or fifteen years, as a result of dictatorship.

But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better. The debased language that I have been discussing is in some ways very convenient. Phrases like a not unjustifiable assumption, leaves much to be desired, would serve no good purpose, a consideration which we should do well to bear in mind, are a continuous temptation, a packet of aspirins always at one’s elbow. Look back through this essay, and for certain you will find that I have again and again committed the very faults I am protesting against. By this morning’s post I have received a pamphlet dealing with conditions in Germany. The author tells me that he “felt impelled” to write it. I open it at random, and here is almost the first sentence I see: “[The Allies] have an opportunity not only of achieving a radical transformation of Germany’s social and political structure in such a way as to avoid a nationalistic reaction in Germany itself, but at the same time of laying the foundations of a co-operative and unified Europe.” You see, he “feels impelled” to write — feels, presumably, that he has something new to say — and yet his words, like cavalry horses answering the bugle, group themselves automatically into the familiar dreary pattern. This invasion of one’s mind by ready-made phrases (lay the foundations, achieve a radical transformation) can only be prevented if one is constantly on guard against them, and every such phrase anaesthetizes a portion of one’s brain.

I said earlier that the decadence of our language is probably curable. Those who deny this would argue, if they produced an argument at all, that language merely reflects existing social conditions, and that we cannot influence its development by any direct tinkering with words and constructions. stones So far as the general tone or spirit of a language goes, this may be true, but it is not true in detail. Silly words and expressions have often disappeared, not through any evolutionary process but owing to the conscious action of a minority. Two recent examples were explore every avenue and leave no stone unturned, which were killed by the jeers of a few journalists. There is a long list of flyblown metaphors which could similarly be got rid of if enough people would interest themselves in the job; and it should also be possible to laugh the not un– formation out of existence, to reduce the amount of Latin and Greek in the average sentence, to drive out foreign phrases and strayed scientific words, and, in general, to make pretentiousness unfashionable. But all these are minor points. The defense of the English language implies more than this, and perhaps it is best to start by saying what it does not imply.

To begin with it has nothing to do with archaism, with the salvaging of obsolete words and turns of speech, or with the setting up of a “standard English” which must never be departed from. On the contrary, it is especially concerned with the scrapping of every word or idiom which has outworn its usefulness. It has nothing to do with correct grammar and syntax, which are of no importance so long as one makes one’s meaning clear, or with the avoidance of Americanisms, or with having what is called a “good prose style.” On the other hand, it is not concerned with fake simplicity and the attempt to make written English colloquial. Nor does it even imply in every case preferring the Saxon word to the Latin one, though it does imply using the fewest and shortest words that will cover one’s meaning. What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around. In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them. When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualizing you probably hunt about until you find the exact words that seem to fit it. When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning. Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations. Afterward one can choose — not simply accept — the phrases that will best cover the meaning, and then switch round and decide what impressions one’s words are likely to make on another person. This last effort of the mind cuts out all stale or mixed images, all prefabricated phrases, needless repetitions, and humbug and vagueness generally. But one can often be in doubt about the effect of a word or a phrase, and one needs rules that one can rely on when instinct fails. I think the following rules will cover most cases:

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.
(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.
(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

These rules sound elementary, and so they are, but they demand a deep change of attitude in anyone who has grown used to writing in the style now fashionable. One could keep all of them and still write bad English, but one could not write the kind of stuff that I quoted in those five specimens at the beginning of this article.

I have not here been considering the literary use of language, but merely language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought. Stuart Chase and others have come near to claiming that all abstract words are meaningless, and have used this as a pretext for advocating a kind of political quietism. Since you don’t know what Fascism is, how can you struggle against Fascism? One need not swallow such absurdities as this, but one ought to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end. dustbin If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself. Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one’s own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase — some jackboot, Achilles’ heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno, or other lump of verbal refuse — into the dustbin, where it belongs.


Rhymin’ and rappin’ with Big Ben Jonson

Sunday, 6 August, 2017 0 Comments

Ben Jonson The great English playwright, poet and actor, Ben Jonson, died on this day in 1637. He wrote what is considered his first important work, Every Man in His Humour, in 1598 and in a 1616 production one William Shakespeare appeared in a leading role. Shortly after the play opened, Jonson killed Gabriel Spencer in a duel and was tried for murder. He pleaded “benefit of clergy”, which meant he was allowed to face a more lenient court by proving he could read and write Latin. Jonson spent only a few weeks in prison, but shortly after his release he was again arrested for failing to pay an actor — not Shakespeare. Life was turbulent for Ben and all those who knew him.

Were he alive today, Big Ben would be a successful rapper, no doubt. He’d love the bling, the booze and the booty and his rhymes would be golden, and platinum. See, the rhymin’ came easy to Big Ben J, which is why he had mixed feelings ’bout it. Yo!

A Fit of Rhyme against Rhyme

Rhyme, the rack of finest wits,
That expresseth but by fits
True conceit,
Spoiling senses of their treasure,
Cozening judgment with a measure,
But false weight;
Wresting words from their true calling,
Propping verse for fear of falling
To the ground;
Jointing syllabes, drowning letters,
Fast’ning vowels as with fetters
They were bound!
Soon as lazy thou wert known,
All good poetry hence was flown,
And art banish’d.
For a thousand years together
All Parnassus’ green did wither,
And wit vanish’d.
Pegasus did fly away,
At the wells no Muse did stay,
But bewail’d
So to see the fountain dry,
And Apollo’s music die,
All light failed!
Starveling rhymes did fill the stage;
Not a poet in an age
Worth crowning;
Not a work deserving bays,
Not a line deserving praise,
Pallas frowning;
Greek was free from rhyme’s infection,
Happy Greek by this protection
Was not spoiled.
Whilst the Latin, queen of tongues,
Is not yet free from rhyme’s wrongs,
But rests foiled.
Scarce the hill again doth flourish,
Scarce the world a wit doth nourish
To restore
Phoebus to his crown again,
And the Muses to their brain,
As before.
Vulgar languages that want
Words and sweetness, and be scant
Of true measure,
Tyrant rhyme hath so abused,
That they long since have refused
Other cæsure.
He that first invented thee,
May his joints tormented be,
Cramp’d forever.
Still may syllables jar with time,
Still may reason war with rhyme,
Resting never.
May his sense when it would meet
The cold tumour in his feet,
Grow unsounder;
And his title be long fool,
That in rearing such a school
Was the founder.

Ben Johnson (1572 – 1637)


And after winter folweth grene May

Sunday, 1 May, 2016 0 Comments

The poem Troilus and Criseyde shows Geoffrey Chaucer at the top of his game and he displays great elegance in the challenging Rhyme royal measure. The tale was old when Chaucer took it over in the 14th century from Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato, making some changes to the characters and lengthening the yarn. Boccaccio had borrowed it from an earlier Italian, Guido delle Colonne, who got his version from the French Roman de Troie by Benoit de Ste-Maure, who pretended that he got it from the Romans Dares Phrygius and Dictys Cretensis. Two centuries after Chaucer died, Shakespeare retold the story in Troilus and Cressida. For the day that’s in it (May Day), here’s Chaucer:

“But now help God to quenchen al this sorwe,
So hope I that he shal, for he best may;
For I have seyn, of a ful misty morwe
Folwen ful ofte a mery someres day;
And after winter folweth grene May.
Men seen alday, and reden eek in stories,
That after sharpe shoures been victories.”

May


William Shakespeare and The Search of Lost Time

Sunday, 24 April, 2016 1 Comment

Terence Kilmartin and C. K. Scott Moncrieff translated À la recherche du temps perdu, Marcel Proust’s masterpiece, in the 1920s. In need of an English title, they found inspiration in Shakespeare, in Sonnet 30, which begins: “When to the sessions of sweet silent thought / I summon up remembrance of things past.”

Remembrance of Things Past is a work about time, memory, the past, the present and loss, as is Sonnet 30. When Shakespeare talks of “precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,” does he mean that our departed loved ones are buried, like treasure? Or are they hidden from us in some way we cannot perceive? Despite the ache of loss, what shines through the sonnet is our lifelong longing for friendship, for spiritual and emotional support. As we mark 400 years of Shakespeare, the brilliance of his writing continues to illuminate. Some things might have been lost in interpretation down through the centuries, but what this astonishingly gifted witness of the human condition observed in Elizabethan England continues to echo around the globe. In Shakespeare, we find our remembrance of things past, of lost friends, princes, lords and ladies.

Sonnet 30

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unus’d to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancell’d woe,
And moan th’ expense of many a vanish’d sight;
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restor’d, and sorrows end.

William Shakespeare (26 April 1564 – 23 April 1616)

Mother and Prince


Mary McCarthy’s Macbeth

Friday, 30 October, 2015 0 Comments

“The idea of Macbeth as a conscience-tormented man is a platitude as false as Macbeth himself. Macbeth has no conscience. His main concern throughout the play is that most selfish of all concerns: to get a good night’s sleep.” With those three sentences written in 1961, Mary McCarthy challenged the traditional reading of Macbeth, the man, the murderer, the monarch. He was your everyday bureaucrat, just doing his job, she declared in “General Macbeth” (PDF 108KB).

Two years after McCarthy’s essay was published, Hannah Arendt questioned the common belief that anti-Semitism was what motivated the key Nazi pen pushers. “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil” proposed that conformism was at the heart of top-level Hitlerian wickedness. Maybe evil is simply a function of thoughtlessness, Arendt suggested. Mary McCarthy didn’t use the “banal” word in her meditation on evil, but we know Arendt admired the essay and her interpretation of the efficient SS-Obersturmbannführer is in keeping with McCarthy’s interpretation of the man who would be King of Scotland. Mary McCarthy is brilliant here:

“Macbeth has no feeling for others, except envy, a common middle-class trait. He envies the murdered Duncan his rest, which is a strange way of looking at your victim. What he suffers on his own account after the crimes is simple panic. He is never contrite or remorseful; it is not the deed but a shadow of it, Banquo’s spook, that appears to him. The ‘scruples’ that agitate him before Duncan’s murder are mere echoes of conventional opinion, of what might be said about his deed: that Duncan was his king, his cousin, and a guest under his roof. ‘I have bought golden opinions,’ he says to himself (note the verb), ‘from all sorts of people’; now these people may ask for their opinions back — a refund — if they suspect him of the murder. It is like a business firm’s being reluctant to part with its ‘good will.’ The fact that Duncan was such a good king bothers him, and why? Because there will be universal grief at his death.”

As Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard are a perfect team in Justin Kurzel’s new filming of Shakespeare’s noir masterpiece. His big screen Macbeth is a physical, atmospheric work made all the more chilling by a Scotland of snow, sleet, biting wind, bitter frost and badness and madness.

Macbeth


The Tragedy of Andreas Lubitz

Friday, 27 March, 2015 0 Comments

They buried Richard III in Leicester Cathedral yesterday. As the excavated remains of the blood-sodden English king were being laid to rest, the Bishop of Leicester said, “All our journeys lead to this place where reputation counts for nothing.” But what does this mean? That history does not distinguish between good and evil? That the passenger and the pilot are made equal when the plane crashes? Shakespeare begged to differ, and he had this to say in The Tragedy of Richard the Third, Act 5, Scene 3:

What do I fear? Myself? There’s none else by.
Richard loves Richard; that is, I and I.
Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am.
Then fly! What, from myself? Great reason why:
Lest I revenge. What, myself upon myself?
Alack, I love myself. Wherefore? For any good
That I myself have done unto myself?
O, no! Alas, I rather hate myself
For hateful deeds committed by myself.
I am a villain. Yet I lie. I am not.
Fool, of thyself speak well. Fool, do not flatter:
My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,
And every tongue brings in a several tale,
And every tale condemns me for a villain.

Brice Robin, the chief prosecutor of Marseilles, listened to the recovered audio file, from start to finish, of Germanwings Flight 4U 9525. He concluded that co-pilot Andreas Lubitz knew his actions and his slow, steady breathing were being recorded.
“Is there a murderer here?”
Why did the lives of those 149 people mean absolutely nothing to him?
“Alas, I rather hate myself.”
We do not know what goes through the mind of a person who feels utter despair. We cannot comprehend the anguish the chronically depressed feel. We are unable to understand the actions of those who have lost all hope. But the Bishop of Leicester was wrong in claiming that all our journeys lead to a place where reputation counts for nothing. Those who write the rough drafts of history have examined the last moments of the co-pilot and his hostage passengers. Their Shakespearean verdict will stand:
“And every tale condemns me for a villain.”


Adobe hoisted with his own petard

Thursday, 29 January, 2015 0 Comments

Background: “Matt Asay is vice president of mobile for the Digital Marketing business at Adobe, responsible for charting the Adobe’s mobile strategy and extending its lead as the mobile marketing leader.” So goes the company profile, which adds that “Asay writes regular columns for ReadWrite, TechRepublic and InfoWorld.” And it was for ReadWrite that Asay opined thus two years ago: “Apple is reportedly developing a smart watch made from curved glass. Does it really have a choice? With iPhone sales stalling, the Cupertino innovator is in desperate need of another hit product…”

John Gruber gleefully seized upon this in light of Tuesday’s Apple announcement of record-breaking results and sales of 34,000 iPhones an hour in the first fiscal quarter of 2015. In simple terms, Apple is making $8.3 million an hour in profit 24/7, which is, as Gruber put it, “Absolutely. Insane.”

Along with exposing the folly of Asay, Gruber had another go at Adobe by drawing attention to a piece from 2011 by Christopher Dawson in ZDNet about the lack of Flash Player support in iOS: “So when will Apple finally jump on the train?” asked Dawson. “If Flash isn’t a universal standard, it’s about as close as you can get for web multimedia… I give Apple a year until they cave. Android tablets will just be too cool and too useful for both entertainment and enterprise applications if they don’t.”

Exercising great restraint, Gruber linked to the sound of the final nail being hammered into the Flash coffin: “YouTube announcing today that they’re now defaulting to HTML5 video.”

“For tis the sport to have the enginer Hoist with his owne petar”. Shakespeare gave that line to Hamlet 400 years ago. It holds true today, especially in the Apple/Adobe drama.

Hamlet


Dealing with dementia. Is there an app for that?

Tuesday, 29 April, 2014 0 Comments

Stats: As of last year, 44.4 million people worldwide were diagnosed as suffering from dementia. This number will increase to 75.6 million in 2030, and 135.5 million in 2050. Much of the increase will be in the developing world. The fastest growth in the elderly population is taking place in China, India, and their south Asian and western Pacific neighbours. Already 62 percent of those with dementia live in developing countries.

What is it like to suffer from dementia? It must be hellish. In aid of Alzheimer’s Research UK,Facebook users are today being invited to experience what it is like to live with the disease. The FaceDementia app “takes over” your page, and temporarily erases important memories, imitating how dementia affects the brain. Users can watch their photos and status updates disappear before their eyes. Terrifying.

In a related development, the creators of the Re-MindMe app are aiming to help dementia sufferers, their family members and care givers. The idea is to use mobile devices to preserve a person’s long-term memories and thereby keep them mentally active and interacting with people. The developers are seeking backers using the crowdcube funding platform and they’ve raised £30,240 of the £150,000 target for 15 percent of the equity so far.

If you want to learn more about the tragedy of dementia, go to a performance of King Lear. Shakespeare understood the descent into darkness: “Who is it that can tell me who I am?”


Horripilation: Like quills upon the fretful porpentine

Monday, 31 March, 2014 0 Comments

Each week brings with it dreadful stories that would make one’s hair stand on end. Take the one about the four princesses who say that they have been trapped in the Saudi Arabian royal compound in Jeddah for the last 13 years. The mother of the four girls was married off to King Abdullah at the age of 15, and she claims that they have been subject to constant abuse and are effectively being held under house arrest. Sadly, such tales about court intrigue are not new and Shakespeare captured the horror of it all some four centuries ago in Hamlet, where the ghost addresses the young prince:

But that I am forbid
To tell the secrets of my prison-house,
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part
And each particular hair to stand on end,
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine

Language note: Shakespeare’s “porpentine” is better known today as the porcupine, and the idiom of hair standing on end refers to the sensation of hairs, especially those on the neck, standing upright when the skin contracts due to fear. This phenomenon was once called “horripilation” and was defined in 1656 as “the standing up of the hair for fear… a sudden quaking, shuddering or shivering,” by Thomas Blount in his splendidly named Glossographia, or a dictionary interpreting such hard words as are now used.